When I arrived at the offices of the startup Sophya at noon on a recent Monday, no one seemed to be in.
Not too unusual for the pandemic era.
I roamed around for a few minutes, noting the foosball table, the tiki-themed bar, and a few decorations left over from the holidays. Eventually, I found the two people I was supposed to meet, and they gave me a tour, including the special area where the engineers work. It’s usually off-limits to non-engineers in order to minimize interruptions, explained Vishal Punwani, the CEO. At that moment, there were about 18 people in Sophya’s offices.
The company’s spacious digs are constructed entirely of pixels. I was visiting a two-dimensional, videogame-inspired digital world that lives in a Web browser, intended as a substitute for those physical offices many of us once occupied. Sophya is just one of a handful of startups that are trying to redefine how we collaborate, communicate, and connect — in ways that break from the standard videoconferencing model.
Sophya’s employees are spread around the world, but they show up for work every day in their virtual offices. The company is in the business of building virtual offices for others. When I dropped in to talk to Punwani and his colleague Howard Kaplan, I just clicked a link in an e-mail to get there. I was assigned an avatar at random, though I could customize the clothing, hair, and other aspects. (I put on a natty black suit, just for a change from my typical work-from-home attire.) I used the arrow keys on my laptop, or the trackpad, to move around the office. When I got close to other avatars, a postage stamp-size live video popped up, and we could chat face-to-face. Some people had a lock icon over their avatars; that means they were having private conversationa.
Punwani explained that he and several of his colleagues (though not Kaplan) met playing the fantasy-themed videogame “World of Warcraft,” in which players often form “guilds” to perform tasks together, called “quests.”
Sound a bit like your job?
“We jokingly call Sophya the ‘world of workcraft,’ ” Punwani said. “We’re building the things people need for productivity, with the social tools we want.”
In Sophya, you can collaborate on documents or use a digital whiteboard together, but you can also cluster around a lunch table and eat together, or play a version of the drawing game “Pictionary” together. Unlike in brick-and-mortar offices, it doesn’t matter that some team members are in Boston and others are in Idaho, Vancouver, or Delhi.
Sophya got its start in 2018 at the Harvard Innovation Lab in Allston, a shared space used by students working on startup ideas. (Punwani and cofounder Emma Giles were students at Harvard Medical School; Giles is on leave from a doctoral program there to focus on the company.) During the pandemic, that space has been closed.
“One of the things we loved about the [Harvard] iLab,” Punwani said, “was that there was the kitchen where we could serendipitously meet, the Ping-Pong and the Foosball tables, in addition to open space for meetings. “It wasn’t just that an architect had drawn things on a blueprint — it was intentional engineering.”
Punwani said he’s trying to do the same for Sophya’s digital offices. Some companies want their own special features. Netflix, for instance, wants the same kind of movie memorabilia it has in its physical offices, like a larger-than-life “Terminator” robot. Another Sophya customer used to have its company meetings around a red Ferrari van (“Ferrari-side chats”), so a Ferrari van is a component of its online space.
Sophya plans to charge companies $20 per month for each employee who uses the online office; custom design costs extra.
Kaplan argues that this sort of digital workplace represents a possible future for many companies, even when the pandemic wanes. “Forcing human beings to live within a 20-mile radius of the corporate office is a great way to impose your will over their personal life,” he said. “I think we’ll look back on that in 10 years as an unbelievably antiquated notion.”
Narine Hall, a professor of computer science at Champlain College in Vermont, began building a digital classroom in August. She was driven by her frustration with having to teach classes using Zoom, the popular videoconferencing software.
“Instead of lecturing, I like to focus on hands-on experience in my classes,” she said. “I tried everything out there — Zoom, WebEx, Google Hangouts.” But Hall felt limited by all of them. Teaching online “wasn’t rewarding anymore,” Hall said. She thought about taking a break but instead enlisted a friend in Armenia, Haykanush Lputyan, to help her design a new kind of online classroom, which they dubbed InSpace.
The goal was to foster more fluid discussions, allow breakout groups to form easily, and enable students to raise their hands when they had questions. (There’s also a “toxicity filter” monitoring the chat stream; when I tried to type “This class is so dumb” during a demo, it was blocked.)
InSpace is designed specifically for educators, Hall explained. “Our biggest thing is engagement, and having students participating in the conversation, versus being an observer,” she said. Students and professors appear as a live video feed in a circle, rather than as full-body avatars, as they do on Sophya.
Hall is still teaching machine learning at Champlain College this semester — using InSpace. After each class, she and her InSpace colleagues get together to have a “user experience” meeting, talking about what can be improved. Already, she said, 85 other colleges are using InSpace, largely as a result of positive word-of-mouth among professors.
Hall has so far built the startup without outside funding, but InSpace is in the midst of raising capital.
A third startup, Lexington-based Space, dispenses with avatars and webcam feeds to focus entirely on audio conversations that are intended to be public, rather than private. With the Space mobile app, you can listen in on others’ conversations or schedule your own.
Founder Zeeshan Sheikh said he views Space as a tool that “creators, brands, and enterprises” can use to engage with their communities or customers. “As an introvert who likes to fidget and move around, consuming and creating audio has always been more convenient than video,” Sheikh explained. “I do not have to make sure I’m camera-ready. It removes some anxiety, and it makes the discussion more relaxed.”
Space has raised nearly $400,000 from investors, but it will find itself competing against a similar app, Clubhouse, which reportedly raised $100 million recently.
In addition to Clubhouse, there are plenty of other players, large and small, vying to grow their businesses by fostering new kinds of digital interactions as we continue to work and learn from home. The Boston angel investor David Chang observed that “it’s definitely noisy and crowded.”
The pandemic has opened a door for startups to create new kinds of offices, classrooms, and conference centers. But not all of them will figure out how to make it through.